GOP unity in Congress frays

Some lawmakers break ranks with the White House over FCC rules and overtime.

For most of the 108th Congress, Republicans have held ranks with President Bush, especially on the issues he cared most about: tax cuts and the war.

But suddenly, Democrats are finding unexpected openings in that GOP line on issues that usually don't usually engage members of Congress: new administration regulations.

In a vote expected Tuesday, the Senate - with GOP help - is expected to brave a presidential veto to block new FCC rules on broadcast ownership. Last week, six Republicans voted with Democrats to block a change in how the Department of Labor regulates overtime, also in the face of a presidential veto threat. Justice Department proposals to extend the reach of the USA Patriot Act could prompt similar defections.

"As election day gets closer, the firm control that the White House has exerted over Republicans in Congress is going to slacken," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

These contested rules cut to daily-life issues that voters readily understand: Is a worker to be paid for overtime? Is the "local" news really local or just piped in from big media conglomerates in New York or Atlanta?

"Local TV and radio and newspapers are more important to members of Congress than networks," adds Mr. Baker. "National media don't even cover most House members, unless there is a terrible scandal."

A key test of restiveness in Republican ranks will be Tuesday's Senate vote on overturning a new regulation by the Federal Communications Commission. This rule would allow a single media conglomerate to own TV stations reaching 45 percent of US households. The current rule caps ownership at 35 percent.

In a rare move, Sens. Byron Dorgan (D) of North Dakota and Trent Lott (R) of Mississippi invoked a "congressional veto" to derail the regulation, which they say will unleash a flurry of further concentration of ownership of TV and radio stations. Such a congressional maneuver has been used only twice before, most recently to scuttle President Clinton's ergonomics regulations.

The bid to overturn the FCC rule has broad support in the GOP-controlled House, which voted 400 to 21 to scuttle the rule last July. "This is not about personality. The FCC just missed the target on this, and Congress should have a little say about it," says Senator Lott.

Tuesday's vote follows last week's 55-to-45 vote to scuttle a new rule by the Labor Department on overtime. It was a rare victory for Senate Democrats, whose major success to date has been blocking a handful of Mr. Bush's judicial nominations. Democrats held up votes most of last week, until the Republican leadership agreed to allow a vote on this amendment to the $472.2 billion spending bill for the Departments of Labor, Health, and Human Services and Education.

In the end, six Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the new rule, three of which face close races in 2004. At stake in the new rule is which jobs (not covered by collective bargaining agreements) will be exempt from rules requiring pay for work exceeding 40 hours in a week. The proposed rule would have increased the number of low- income workers automatically entitled to overtime by raising the income threshold from $8,060 to $22,100. But critics say that increase in eligibility would have been offset by losses of as many as 8 million workers who are currently eligible for overtime pay, but may not be getting it.

The issue will now be hammered out in negotiations between the Senate and the House, which narrowly rejected a similar overtime amendment. Bush promises a veto, and insiders give him an edge on this issue.

But Democrats say it opens the door to new fights on other issues affecting bread-and-butter issues for voters. "Republicans are increasingly concerned about trying to defend this president's more right-wing proposals," says Jim Manley, a top Democratic aide and spokesman for Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts.

One of the most divisive issues, especially for GOP moderates and libertarians, will be new efforts by the Bush administration to expand the powers of the Justice Department in fighting terrorism. Already dubbed "Patriot II," these proposals include use of administrative subpoenas to force witnesses to testify outside a grand jury.

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